Sunday, September 28, 2014


I had this idea as soon as I heard about Children International's #PovertyChallenge, and though I think the official challenge has ended, I wanted to go ahead and post anyway.

Many impoverished‬ families around the world take to dumps and landfills, seeking scraps of metal and plastic that they might sell for a bit of money. So for my poverty‬ challenge, I decided to see what it was like to feed myself with only the money I gleaned from digging through bags of trash for returnable cans.

It's gross‬. That was my first thought as I tore into that very first trash bag. It's wet and slimy, and it smells awful. I don't know *what* I'm putting my hands into. Moreover, it's dangerous: I encountered broken glass and bees as I dug through bag after bag. The labor isn't very rewarding--a few cans at a time add up slowly. I actually got used to the ‪smell‬ and the wetness after a while--it's only bothersome if something spills all over my clothes or shoes. I stopped caring about the people who ‪stare‬ at me elbow-deep in ‪trash‬, too. Well ... sorta. It bothers me less, anyway.

Most days, I only get half a bag of cans; I consider a single, full bag to be a great day. I become ridiculously excited when I discover new places to glean cans. There is competition for this limited commodity, after all, and certain areas are even "claimed turf" (today, the "senior canners" are not here; I had access to their sources in addition to my own!). So I get disproportionately excited; each can is only worth five cents, but I got to them *first*! I found these five in the trash cans in my break room. It made me think to check the trash cans in each jet bridge, where I found about a dozen more.

After two weeks of can hunting, it seems to have seeped into my subconscious, and I find myself peeking into every receptacle I pass. I have to remind myself not to dig through the trash in the airport terminal ... at least, not while it's full of passengers. The not digging is a special kind of agony, though. How many cans are in there, being wasted?! That could be tomorrow's lunch!

A full trash bag of cans is worth about eight dollars. Today was an exceptionally good day, due to the absence of the aforementioned "senior canners," and I came away with two and a half bags. With luck, the contents of these bags will yield $20. I can have sandwiches and salads for a week on this taking--I can even buy milk and eggs!

Before I can redeem them, I have to rinse them and attempt to un-crush any that were mangled--an endeavor that leads to sore and sometimes sliced fingers. Then I show up at the grocery store with my bag of cans. The machine only takes some of the brands; the rest must be hand-counted. The man at the counter is none too friendly. Even though I rinsed them, he still grumbles about the smell of my cans. People stare as I bring forth the quantity I've gleaned. "She must be homeless," they are thinking, "or a drug addict." They say nothing, but their thoughts are pained on their faces.

After the cans are counted, the man hands me a small slip of paper with the total. "Don't lose it!" I tell myself fiercely as I tuck it safely into a pocket. It's the only proof I have, the only fruit to show for my labor. I can now shop in the grocery store, paying for my carefully-chosen items with this small slip of paper. I may even be lucky enough to get a few cents back in change.

I cannot imagine trying to live every day like this...especially knowing that most days I'd only get three or four dollars. Sure, I could eat on that. But rent? Medical care? Shoes and clothes? And I'm just one person. How can you hope to support a family doing this?

Because I do not actually live in poverty, I am able to wait until I have a substantial collection of cans before I redeem them. This is about two weeks' worth (including tonight's exceptionally good yield). I'll get about $60 for them, I think. That's a lot, sure--it's great, in fact!--but I'm not actually trying to survive on that money. An income of $120 a month ... that's what some of my children's families earn. In some of their cases, it's more. Much, much more.

I would like to acknowledge my fiance Luke, who has been right there with me, elbow-deep in the trash bags, for this endeavor ... and who will be right there with me as I face the grumpy man at the counter with my truckload of cans tomorrow!